Blackburn Rovers have their best chance of a return to the Premier League in a decade, but it’s astonishing that their owners are even still there.
Years ending in two have a peculiar significance to Blackburn Rovers. They first won the FA Cup in 1882, the Football League Championship and Charity Shield in 1912, a Football League play-off final in 1992, and the Football League Cup in 2002. But this hasn’t been a one-way street. In January 2012, the club was descending into a chaos that would result in their relegation from the Premier League. That the owners who oversaw that disastrous season are still in place at Ewood Park is one of the more surprising stories of the last ten years.
Venky’s London Ltd arrived at Blackburn in November 2010 after agreeing a deal worth £43m; they started very badly, coming in for considerable criticism over their decision to sack Sam Allardyce as manager a month after their arrival. When Steve Kean, an assistant coach with close ties to the (now-retired) agent Jerome Anderson, was appointed into the manager’s job, protests against the owners started amongst supporters. Anderson’s company, SEM Group, had been bought a year earlier by Kentaro, a Swiss media rights company that had helped to broker the sale of the club and were said to have too much influence over the club’s decision-making. Venky’s looked out of their depth, and Kean soon was too. Previous directors of the club resigned early in 2011 and the team only avoided relegation on the final day of the season.
They weren’t so lucky the following season. With the protests growing and rumours that the players no longer wanted to play for Kean, Blackburn slumped into the relegation places with a run of six straight defeats from the end of March. Relegation was confirmed at the end of their penultimate home match of the season against Wigan Athletic, a 1-0 home defeat now best remembered for the visually arresting image of a live chicken draped in a Blackburn flag, which had been thrown onto the pitch by a protesting supporter in recognition of Venky’s main business in the poultry industry.
Things didn’t improve much in the Championship. If anything, they grew even more chaotic. A month after relegation was confirmed, the club hired a former Malaysian international called Shebby Singh in an advisory position. Singh immediately fell out with Steve Kean and he left at the end of September, which sounds desirable until we factor in that there were strong rumours that this was because Singh was attempting to interfere in team affairs. Singh left the club at the end of the season. His death, at the age of 61, has just been reported. Although widely considered to have been operating out of his depth, he has also been credited with getting Kentaro out of Ewood Park.
Kean was replaced by Henning Berg, who lasted 57 days before being sacked. Berg later took the club to an employment tribunal for unfair dismissal and won his case and £2.25m in damages. His replacement, Michael Appleton, lasted 67 days. Only a run of four wins and two draws from their last seven matches under caretaker Gary Bowyer spared Blackburn a second successive relegation, and they finished the 2012/13 season in 17th place in the Championship.
That summer, in a rare outbreak of common sense, Bowyer was appointed as the club’s fourth permanent manager in 12 months. Bowyer steadied the ship on the pitch as the club immolated around him, but by 2015 it was clear that Blackburn were in trouble. With debts rising, players were sold without the manager’s consent. In November, Bowyer was sacked and replaced by Paul Lambert.
Lambert kept Blackburn just above the relegation places until the end of the 2015/16 season, but early in 2016 the club posted debts of £104m. Venky’s again angered supporters, this time by appointing Owen Coyle, who’d previous managed local rivals Burnley, to replace Lambert. But Coyle was catastrophic as Blackburn’s manager, and by the time of his sacking in February 2017 they were heading towards a second relegation, this time to League One.
But as Blackburn sailed down into the third tier for only the third time in their history, the tide began to turn at Ewood Park, regardless of the owners. Tony Mowbray arrived in February 2017, and came close to rescuing a disastrous season. Blackburn had looked sunk at the time of his arrival, but they finished the season on 51 points, relegated only by goal difference after winning three and drawing two of their last five matches. Mowbray was kept on and the following year Blackburn were promoted back into the Championship. He’s still there, now the ninth longest-serving manager in the Premier League and EFL, with his fifth anniversary coming up.
The club’s first three seasons back in the Championship were solid mid-table seasons and little more. The pandemic has overshadowed much of that time, but Venky’s have continued to put money into the club. It’s estimated that their involvement at Blackburn Rovers has cost them somewhere between £150m and £200m, and it’s fair to say they have fallen some way short of the lofty ambitions they held of making Blackburn Rovers a global brand.
They eventually found that the route to something approaching stability was the exact opposite of what they did over the course of their first six or seven years. Rather than chopping and changing, they found a competent manager, stuck with him and supported him as he got them back into the Championship with relatively little fuss. This season’s climb to the chase for a place in the Premier League has been most unexpected, but a reflection of a calmer club.
The result has been a state of detente between the supporters and the owners of the club. There are still said to be those who are staying away from Ewood Park until the family leaves the club for good, while there are also those who believe that Venky’s have never properly explained or apologised for the way in which they ran the club over their first few years, as well as those who simply feel that this particular hatchet needs to be buried at some point, for the good of the club, if nothing else.
When Venky’s arrived at Ewood Park, they walked into a club which they didn’t seem to understand. Blackburn Rovers is a proud club, a founder member of the Football League, one of the few which has completed a clean sweep of the major domestic trophies. But their Jack Walker-fuelled 1995 Premier League title didn’t lead to anything substantial or long term; they were relegated four years later, and took two years to get back.
But get back they did, and had stayed there until the new owners arrived. The club needed careful tending, sensible funding, and for that sense of continuation with the past to continue. They may have been able to overcome this had they been successful, but the decision to sack Sam Allardyce so quickly turned both fans and the media against them and set in motion a chain of events that took six-and-a-half years to even begin to turn around.
There remain challenges ahead. There’s desperation at the bottom of the Premier League, and Blackburn have Ben Brereton Diaz, the second highest scorer in the Championship with 20 goals in 25 league games. He is valued at £25m at present, and resisting the temptation to cash in on a player that few were expecting to explode may prove a challenge, especially after the financial ravages of Covid. But the detente between Blackburn supporters and the club’s owners is brittle, and things could easily deteriorate quickly should Diaz be sold.
Blackburn Rovers currently have a far better chance of promotion back to the Premier League than at any point in the decade that has passed since they were last relegated. To a point, perhaps the biggest surprise about Venky’s is that they are still there, and still putting funds into the club at all. It’s cost them a lot of money, they haven’t been successful, and it certainly hasn’t made them popular. But promotion at the end of this season would go a long way towards vindicating their decision to buy the club, from a financial standpoint at least. And this is 2022, after all.